In a Nutshell
In a titanic struggle in which the Blazers constantly battled lack of size and duplication of skill, LaMarcus Aldridge, Brandon Roy, Rudy Fernandez, Andre Miller, and Wesley Matthews keep hitting and hitting the Denver wall until it finally comes tumbling down under Roy's late-game heroics and some great team defense. Let the record show that it took exactly one (1) game for Nate McMillan to kick Brandon Roy's minutes limit to the curb. The Blazers turn in yet another candidate for Game of the Year, this time because of the short-handed roster as much as beautiful play.
The Blazers saw the mountain they had to climb the moment this game started. Denver's defense, once a semi-laughingstock, has become formidable almost overnight. The Nuggets field long, rangy, active players at multiple positions. Every time Portland passed the ball in the early going Denver's defense was right on top of it. The Blazers couldn't even think about getting the rock inside. Portland's opening offense read: 20-footer, 19-footer, 19-footer, free throws, 25-footer, 25-footer, 23-footer. Normally this spells disaster for the Blazers but fate and fortune smiled on them. A couple of those threes went in. On the other end Denver was settling for mid-range shots. That left the Blazers with a 10-5 lead four minutes into the game. If doubling your opponent's score can be described as precarious, though, this was precarious. Sure enough, midway through the period Denver turned up the heat first by forcing turnovers and running, then by running off of any old miss. Portland was forced to foul on multiple possessions to halt number-heavy fast breaks. Even though the Nuggets weren't connecting with their awkward offense they stayed afloat at the line. Denver closed the gap to 3, but Portland led 25-19 exiting the first.
In the second stanza Portland stole a page from Denver's book. The Nuggets were still having trouble getting into the offense. The Nuggets were still missing shots. The Nuggets were still turning the ball over under pressure. Add this all together and the plan of action becomes clear. Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum went bonkers with their long arms, pressuring any dribble or pass they got near. When a Denver perimeter player escape their clutches LaMarcus Aldridge came through with MONSTER help, bothering dribbles and swatting shots like they were biplanes and he was King flippin' Kong. In addition the Blazers continued what would be a game-long trend of good rebounding. The result was Portland pushing tempo off of Denver miscues, running the ball for layups or short jumpers before Denver's defense got set. Portland still struggled when forced into the halfcourt, as Denver made a concerted effort to double LaMarcus Aldridge every time he thought about putting the ball near the floor. When slowed the Blazers still depended on the jumper to bail them out. But they didn't allow themselves to be slowed as much. Portland's offense wasn't that hot but Denver's was actually sucking heat out of the building. The Blazers won the quarter by 4 and took a 10 point lead into the half, 49-39.
As good teams will, the Nuggets made adjustments at the half. If nothing else this shows that George Karl is coaching full-bore and somebody is listening over there...both of which came into doubt during the last couple years. The main adjustment was defensive. Riddle me this: Absent centers and Gerald Wallace, Portland starts a lineup of Aldridge, Batum, Matthews, Rudy Fernandez, and Andre Miller. How many of those players can put the ball on the floor with any kind of grace or consistent effectiveness? Answer: Miller and Miller alone. So what does Denver do? Get all up in the grill of ANYBODY who dribbles the ball except for Andre, whom they force into jumpers instead of dribbling. Their mobility meant there was little cost to this strategy. If a Blazer player occasionally got halfway around a defender who played too tightly looking to disrupt the dribble another Nugget would quickly close and bother the penetration. At best those Portland dribblers had one move and one direction. They certainly weren't going to throw in a second in response to that second guy. In practical terms this meant the Blazers either turned it over to the initial dribble defender, turned it over to the help guy, or panicked and barfed up a horrible looking pass or awkward shot. In any of these eventualities Denver ran...and ran...and ran...and ran. It was like Chariots of Fire sped up to octuple speed with dunks at the end. Or free throws. Or open jumpers. Who cares? It's your five-on-two, paint it however you want. On the rare occasions the Nuggets didn't break they simply used a guard to attack the paint, collapsed Portland's defense, and then tossed the ball to Danilo Gallinari or Wilson Chandler. The two former Knicks dined on a sweet buffet of open jumpers. When all else failed Gallinari was four inches taller than any defender Portland could throw against him, so he just put up some extra shots. Between the fast breaks, the free throws, the jumpers, and a few extra buckets for fun the Nuggets scored 33 in the period. The Blazers managed...16. They couldn't run a bit taking the ball out of the net and they still stunk in the halfcourt. Down 10 at the half the Nuggets made up 17 in one fell swoop and went into the fourth up 7, 72-65. For those who are counting, they went from 39 to 72 in a single quarter. Yikes.
The Blazers struggled big-time at the beginning of the fourth period as well. They had a couple more turnovers and a few more missed jumpers. Their saving grace was Miller, who decided if nobody else could handle the ball, he should. 'Dre finally got Portland some points at the rim and at the line. The Blazers made their own defensive adjustment between quarters, throwing out their old standby zone. Plan "Z" covered their lack of size inside and helped quell Denver's penetration. The Nuggets drifted outside which cut out the heart of their scoring. Rebounds and quicker trips down the floor eventually spurred Portland's scoring back to normal. Slowly Miller pulled the team back. It was 80-78 Denver with 6:00 left when the Nuggets called a timeout. Denver promptly hit a pretty three, a jumper, and a layup. Miller and Matthews answered with layups of their own but it looked like the Blazers had hit that proverbial "this close and no closer" NBA comeback wall.
Then Nate looked down his bench.
You know how in Lost those lottery numbers of Hurley's keep showing up everywhere? I'm pretty convinced that when Coach McMillan turned his head in that moment he saw somebody drinking a 7-up, then somebody else had a Lucky 7 lottery ticket. I think Gerald Wallace had an old Brad Pitt film on his i-Pad, Coach Bernie Bickerstaff had a Big Gulp from somewhere, and Patty Mills was busy trying to figure out what the lowest number was that could not be represented as the sum of the squares of three integers. All of a sudden something began flashing in Nate's head. Could there be...a message here somewhere? A-HA!!! Luke Babbitt, get your rookie rump in the game and light it up! Then Mills stood up and said, "By gum, I have solved it! It's...it's...7."
7... 7... 7... 7...
"That number used to mean something to me," thought Nate. "Back before the injuries, back before the season derailed, I used to call that number. So...long...ago... What was it?" Then from the end of the bench came a smile with the reflection of the Rose Garden's monster scoreboard gleaming off of perfectly straight, polished teeth.
Brandon! Brandon Roy! You are #7! You can dribble! You can score! Oh how we need thee! Come to our aid swiftly! (I'm sure this is exactly how Coach said it.)
So Nate flicked his finger and down to the scorers table trotted Brandon Roy. He had already burned through most of his minutes in the second period (when Portland's offense was doing just fine, thank you) but limits be damned. There was a game to win. With the clock reading three-four-(wait for it)-seven Roy checked in. The Blazers were down 7 (ha!) and trying to stay afloat. Whoop! "Will a couple of free throws off of a nifty move help?" Roy said. Done. "How about a layup off of a sweet Miller assist?" Done.
OHHHH NO. Denver hit a three. But they left Roy wide open beyond the arc at the other end.
Blazers within 3 with 39 seconds left. Denver hits another shot. Portland calls timeout. In the huddle Rudy Fernadez says, "You know, Brandon Roy, we have a Spanish version of you. We call him...me." The Blazers inbound to Rudy in the coffin corner and he hits an impossibly quick leaning three. Blazers within 2 with 14 seconds left.
OHHHH NO. They had to foul Gallinari. The last time he missed a free throw was in the Stone Age. He steps to the line and...welcome back Mesolithic Era!!! He missed one!
Blazers down 3 with 13 seconds left. Portland gets the ball to Roy. He takes position at the extended left arc, Raymond Felton on him. He up-fakes. Felton goes flying by. He leans, he lifts, he shoots...
"BLING! BLING! BLING! BLING! BLING! BLING! BLING! BLING! BLING!!!"
What kind of toothpaste are you using, Dawg? Nobody shines that bright without some kind of help.
One Brandon Roy foiling of a Ty Lawson layup later and the game is into overtime.
In the OT Denver again played a Portland-esque offense, going into their big man Nene first and, failing that, depending on shooting guard Aaron Afflalo to bail them out, almost as if they were Aldridge and Roy. Both scored with effect. Afflalo was especially hot and looked for a time like he would win the game single-handedly. (Apparently they have good toothpaste in Denver too.) But the Blazers played a Denver-like offense, attacking like a hydra from multiple positions. Matthews hit a three, Aldridge a short hook, Fernandez drew free throws. When the dust settled Denver still owned a 106-104 lead with a minute left. Then Matthews got fouled. The camera held his face in a close up as he prepared for his free throws. You could tell it wasn't good. His eyes were jumpy and he rushed the first shot, missing it. He disgustedly canned the second but Portland was down 1 yet. This is where the Blazers started to shine on the defensive end. Rudy Fernandez stole a pass. Then Nene fouled Aldridge on another nifty move. This was nervous-time as LMA has not been clutch at the line lately. But he sank both tosses and the Blazers led by 1. Denver called a couple timeouts only to end up with a Gallinari shot two feet beyond the arc which missed. But the rebound caromed off of Nene's hands to Miller's face and out of bounds. Denver would have a final shot. They called timeout again only to end up with a well-covered Afflalo heave from the right sideline arc. It missed. Blazers win, 107-106. It was an amazing effort from a short-handed team against an opponent that never seemed to end.
God help the Blazers if they ever have to field that small or dribble-inept of a lineup again because the league will surely take notice of this game. The Blazers survived because of great team rebounding, great team defense everywhere but in transition, some really nice three-point shooting, and some real offensive heroics. This was about heart and guts and Portland showed plenty of both.
Now...everybody who, following the knee-hobbling of the past year, has been saying that Brandon Roy is bad for this offense, you can shush now. Portland's offense only really flowed tonight when Roy was in. He looked reasonably healthy and quick and he didn't slow the offense down. Nor did he gum it up. No...shush. Really...tssszt. Here's a cookie. Here's a pat on the head. Shhh.
Everybody who played more than 10 minutes in this game did something amazing.
Aldridge emerged from the constant trapping and hammering with 24 points and not that many forced shots. Even better, he grabbed 14 rebounds. Those boards were so critical to Portland's play. Denver had only 6 offensive rebounds all night and Aldridge was a big part of that. And the defense...he was as good tonight as I've ever seen him. Bravo.
Rudy Fernandez hit 4-8 threes, scored 18 points, had 6 rebounds, 5 assists, and that big steal. He relished his time on the floor too. I don't remember exactly when he crossed the line, but he definitely looks like an NBA player now. Fantastic game.
Nicolas Batum only scored 8 but had 8 rebounds, 2 steals, and some nifty defense of his own. He did well for having to play out of position.
Andre Miller: 18 points, 9 rebounds, 9 assists. He saved Portland's bacon early in the fourth. Roy doesn't get to take Portland over the top unless Andre provides those points earlier when nobody else could. Another fantastic game.
Wesley Matthews scored 16 on 7-15 shooting but I'm more impressed by his 7 rebounds. He contributed in more ways besides scoring on a night when the Blazers needed every bit of it. Dude played 50 minutes too.
Brandon Roy...whoa. 24 minutes played, including all of the critical ones, 7-14 shooting, 2 threes in the final moments of regulation when nothing else would do, solid defense when needed, 5 rebounds, 2 assists, a steal, a block, 18 points.
Patty Mills hit a nice three to break the ice in the second half.
Luke Babbitt's pre-game ritual should have been a shower followed by covering himself in multiple layers of frosting, because the Nuggets ate him up.
Stats of the Night
- Denver 6 offensive rebounds. The short, center-less Blazers win the overall rebounding battle 51-47.
- The short, center-less Blazers also scored 50 points in the paint.
- Blazers 10-23 from distance.
- The Nuggets are back to being physical again, which is how it should be. The shot 35 free throws to Portland's 21 and owned the court physically. Welcome Gerald Wallace. Here is Assignment #1 for you.
Odd Notes and Links
They showed Gerald Wallace on the big screen and the ESPN commentators hushed up to let the TV viewing audience hear the rousing, at least half-standing, ovation the crowd gave him. He was trying hard not to smile. Don't worry about finding a home here, my friend. Blazer fans already know who you are.
The ESPN commentating crew also talked about nothing but the Nuggets and the bright prospects of Gallinari for the first half hour of the broadcast. They eventually got around to mentioning Portland had made a big trade as well. In the end the Blazers had their tongues wagging.
At the conclusion of the game Brandon Roy's teammates mobbed him. Think they don't feel good about having him around?
Your Boxscore commemorating the night you saw Brandon being Brandon.
Denver Stiffs will hopefully have an interesting take on all of this.
The site will be down for a while after 1:00 a.m. tonight for upgrades and maintenance. It shouldn't last long.